Everyday Was Trash - Albums in 2018

There was a time when I wasn’t even able to name 10 albums that I liked enough, within a year, to make one of these stupid year-end lists. In 2014, after only, like, four months on the job at the newspaper, coupled with a family member who was having health issues, I could feel myself beginning to slowly decline into the depths of a serious depressive episode—and in pushing myself to try to make a year-end list, I could only name eight albums; the following year, in 2015, I could only name seven.

I was able to pull it together enough, despite my best efforts, to put together lists of an even 10 in 2016 and 2017; this year, despite how awful I have felt for a majority of it, I started putting together my ‘shortlist’ of albums for consideration, and I found that I couldn’t quite make it to 20, but I had, like, 17 or 18.

For a while I thought about calling this piece, ‘You Are All My Favorites.’

But that’s not how this works.

I listened to a lot of albums this year. Many of them were released this year—2018. Some of them I even bothered to write reviews of. After deliberation, I was able to select an even-ish 15 that I could put my seal of approval on—a list that blends things that I hope are both representative of this time, as well as timeless.

Opting to not to follow up his breakout The Party with another solo outing, Canadian singer and songwriter Andy Shauf gathered his long gestating band Foxwarren for a series of short, intimately recorded sessions where the four-piece committed to tape its debut effort.

Stepping back from the kaleidoscopic, Beatle-esque pop music of The Party, Shauf and Foxwarren head into a relatively diverse, yet somehow cohesive sound across the record’s 10 tracks. There’s an overarching ‘1970s arty folk-rock’ feeling to a bulk of Foxwarren, but that doesn’t stop them from steering, ever so slightly, into a surprisingly tense groove on “Everything Apart,” or unnerving psychedelia on “Lost in The Dream.”

A startlingly enjoyable listen from beginning to end—there is seriously not a bad song among the bunch—the real standouts include the album’s accessible, infectious opening track, “To Be,” and the late arriving “Sunset Canyon,” which is the kind of homage to the album’s overall sound that could have wound up sounding derivative, but in the hands of such a capable and tight sounding band, it arrives incredibly sincere.

I first encountered Mix-O-Rap’s absolutely wild Eyes of A Key in the spring, and it’s the kind of record that totally caught me off guard—both by the music itself (lo-fi doesn’t even describe just how raw it sounds) as well as the album’s compelling back-story.

Recorded while Mix-O was incarcerated, Eyes of A Key is the result of a meticulous attention to detail in order to achieve this kind of a sound. Using the music room within the prison he was sentenced to, Mix-O, who may or may not be a man named Billy Littlejohn-Bey, went to great lengths to achieve this kind of aesthetic—the specifics of which are documented in press materials that accompany the album, released via the esoteric Washington D.C. label People’s Potential Unlimited.

When I was beginning the absolutely arduous task of picking my favorite records of the year, I placed Eyes of A Key on the turntable and before putting the needle down, I wondered, “Is this record one of my favorites of the year?” The first side hadn’t even finished yet, and I had my answer.

Infectious and hypnotic in its simplicity, it is without a doubt one of the strangest records I have ever heard, but that doesn’t stop it from being an absolute joy to listen to, packed to the brim with a sense of energy and urgency that never relents.

Her seventh full-length solo album in a 20+ year career, Hell-On is a lot of things—it’s a lot to take in, right down to the drastically unsettling cover art, and the stark imagery found within the album’s lavish liner notes.

Written, in a sense, as a response to the fire that claimed her home while on tour, as well as her struggle to remain anonymous in the way the story of her house fire was reported within her community due to a stalker, Hell-On is nothing if not ambitious, personal, and complexly arranged. It’s nowhere near as immediate in its accessibility when compared to her previous solo outing from 2013, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You—though the accessibility is revealed over time. It’s the kind of album that you have to have patience with, initially, because the album’s first track keeps the listener at an arm’s length.

Spanning almost an hour, structurally Hell-On tends to get weighed down after the halfway mark, save for, hands down, its finest moment—Case’s dramatic reinterpretation of the Crooked Fingers song “Sleep All Summer.” With that being said, the album is more or less frontloaded with its best material, including the rollicking, though rather serious in subject matter, “Last Lion of Albion,” the swooning and emotional pull of “Hall of Sarah,” the girl group throwback “Bad Luck,” and the relatively straightforward, yet no less potent “Gumball Blue.”

Within recent memory, Snail Mail frontwoman Lindsay Jordan engaged in a short back and forth with some rando—an older white man (but of course)—on Instagram, who more or less, told her she needed to smile.

The exchange began because the man in question grew weary of seeing photos of Jordan fronting the band where she always appeared to be forlorn. She posted screen caps of the diatribe on Twitter—where he claimed she had an “’I didn’t get my allowance’ scowl.”

The man in question, who posts an awful lot of photos of a hideous newborn baby on his Instagram page, is probably not within the demographic for Jordan’s musical output.

In a year where young (usually sad) women dominated indie rock, Jordan’s arresting debut full-length as Snail Mail, Lush, is full of forlorn scowling, yes, but that’s the point. Juxtaposing a ramshackle, youthful, and sneering indie rock aesthetic with minor detours into swooning dreaminess, Jordan showcases both her knack for infectious, well-written pop songs, as well as moments of tension and drama.

Jordan more or less splits Lush in half while walking the line between both aesthetics, and finding the spaces where they are able to converge. On tracks like “Habit,” “Let’s Find An Out” and “Anytime,” she weaves evocative imagery to create compelling yet ambiguous narratives; and on singles like “Pristine” and “Speaking Terms,” isn’t afraid to craft huge pop hooks.

Fully appreciating Kamasi Washington’s sophomore LP, Heaven and Earth—a sprawling double LP spread across four pieces of vinyl, plus the additional five song EP housed in the center of the album’s packaging—takes time; lots of time. It takes time to make it through all of that music, but it also takes time to unpack all the weight and complexities of the album as a whole.

Not as immediately accessible as its predecessor, The Epic, Heaven and Earth is the kind of album that reveals slowly, and deliberately, which is an interesting contrast to the music housed within the album—songs that, occasionally, arrive at a frenetic, breakneck pace.

There were moments that, originally, I wasn’t 100% sold on—like “Vi Lua Vi Sol,” which features heavily vocoded lead vocals from Washington’s keyboard player, Brandon Coleman, or even the album’s first single (and first track), the stuttering, bombastic, rhythmic, and lyric-heavy “Fists of Fury.” And even after, like, six or seven months of listening to this thing, I’m still not sold on “Fists of Fury,” but I’ve eventually warmed up to the inclusion of Coleman’s spaced out vocals echoing over the top of “Vi Lua.”

Throughout Heaven and Earth, Washington, as a bandleader, saxophonist, and an arranger, works almost effortlessly to keep the tempest under his control. When I was discussing Washington once with my boss, she said he was the kind of jazz musician who played, ‘all the notes.’ And she’s not wrong—sometimes there is just entirely too much happening in a piece, and it’s difficult to know where, if anyplace, you are supposed to direct your focus.

But in all that cacophony, there are moments of sheer beauty, which has become one of Washington’s trademarks—“The Space Travelers Lullaby” is by far the album’s most gorgeous piece, as is the shuffling, mildly reserved “Song for The Fallen.”

The music Tom Krell has spent the last eight years releasing under the How to Dress Well moniker has always been intently personal, but his fifth full-length, The Anteroom, is perhaps his most personal today, as well as his most ambitious artistic endeavor.

A complete turn around from the Technicolor pop music he crafted on 2016’s Care, Krell has returned inward to the dark and cavernous places that he occupied during How to Dress Well’s earliest days; now, however, he’s armed with a much larger budget for music production, as well as much larger vision for the kind of music he wants to make.

Comprised of 13 ‘tracks,’ The Anteroom is intended to be listened to from beginning to end, uninterrupted—save for if you are flipping the record over. It’s a self-referential song cycle that continually connects ideas and themes from the moment is starts until the final, volatile moments of “Nothing.”

Blending icy minimalism with 1990s electronic inspired beats and synths, Krell has made a record for people in the club who want to cry more than dance. The Anteroom is a reflection on two years in Trump’s America, Krell’s own relocation to Los Angeles, as well as a period of time he refers to as a ‘cosmic loneliness,’ and a stark rumination on the idea of the ‘self’—full of poignant insight and thoughtful observations on the human condition in 2018.

Grid of Points, Elizabeth Harris’ first Grouper album since 2014’s haunting Ruins, almost barely constitutes an ‘album’—it’s seven tracks and slightly over 20 minutes in length; oh, and the last track, “Breathing,” ends with a few minutes of the sound from a train passing by.

Serving as a slight companion piece to Ruins, simply because they are both cut from the same sonic cloth—sad piano records—Grid of Points plunges the listener even deeper into the isolated atmosphere Harris has created. While some of her earliest work as Grouper tended to drift into what could be called ‘experimental folk,’ here, it’s easier to at least identify that a song is taking place—you can hear her fragile voice, barely rising above a whisper, as well as the very deliberately restrained plunking of piano keys.

However, there’s still a curtain around it all that keeps you, the listener, at an arm’s length. Harris is willing to let you in only so far, and by drenching everything in a rather cavernous, claustrophobic sounding reverb, still creates something that leaves you with more questions than answers. Everything sounds distant, but like you are almost on the cusp of understanding—e.g you can tell she’s singing, but can’t really make out the words thanks to the way the album is recorded and produced.

And that’s the point—it’s incredibly devastating, pensive, and also mysterious.

There’s nothing as immediately gorgeous and overwhelming as the proper opening track to Ruins, “Clearing”—however, throughout the very concise running time of Grid of Points, Harris has no time to waste when creating an atmosphere that pulls on your emotions—there’s a way that her vocals overlap and reverberate out on “Driving” that stops me in my tracks every time, or the absolutely heartbreaking tension that she creates near the end of the record on “Blouse.”

One of the things that make Federico Durand such a fascinating artist working within the ambient and experimental genres is just how diverse he is as a performer. You can hear this diversity implemented from album to album—whether it is something released as part of a collaboration with another artist, or one of his solo outputs; nothing ever really sounds the same, but they all have that familiarity to them that let you know it’s a product of Durand’s work.

Durand’s latest release—and only effort released in 2018, and a title that literally translates to the kind of music he makes (Little Melodies)—finds him showcasing that diversity within one place.

Assembled in tandem with a book of photographs and released via the prestigious IIKKI label, Pequeñas Melodías is a short batch of compositions that you wish would never end. The finds Durand stretching his abilities as a performer and really shifting sonic tonalities from piece to piece, and it really hits its stride within the middle section. “Los Juguetes De Minka Podhájská,” “Racimos De Luz,” and “Anís” is a pitch perfect three track run, effortlessly spanning across Durand’s palate of sounds, including a hypnotic, decaying, slightly manipulated guitar loop; sustained, emotionally evocative, and alternating synthesizer tones; and melancholic, yet hopeful, glistening, rippled tones, casting a warm, Instagram worthy sunset on everything it touches.

From the pummeling second it opens, all the way through to its final, swooning moments, On Dark Horses is an album that never relents. A short collection of eight songs (seriously, what was with really short albums in 2018?) Rundle finds a way to blend a torrent of roaring, distorted guitars alongside an overall foreboding nature, and still manages to write moments that have gigantic hooks—in some cases, like on the album’s opening track, “Fever Dream,” the refrain of the song absolutely soars. In other cases, like “Darkhorse,” the song’s refrain, while peppered with a tangible darkness, still manages to be infectious.

Even when the pacing of the album begins to slow down after the midway point, Rundle’s otherworldly, haunted howl never ceases in its emotional resonance. Based on the title alone, even before you hear the music, it should be apparent that On Dark Horses is a dark record, full of a palpable tension and release that still cuts through every time you listen.

The thing about the self-titled release from British rapper Manonmars—born Jack Richardson—is that, the more I listen to it, the more I realize just how clever of an album, lyrically, it is.

The arresting debut from Richardson, who has slowly been building his profile over the course of many years and is now a part of the experimental and atmospheric Young Echo collective, Manonmars juxtaposes two worlds that rarely intersect—moody electronic music and rap—and pushes them together in such a way that creates fascinating, often brilliant results.

Spread across 14 tracks (four of which are short instrumental pieces from Richardson’s producers O$VMV$M) rarely do you find a piece on this self-titled release that doesn’t have you doing a double take or laughing out loud at the stoic, deadpan sense of humor with which these lyrics are delivered—in revisiting the album for this end of the year write up, the stream of consciousness, rhymed references of both a Panasonic video camera and Sonic The Hedgehog in “Getaway” really hit me this time around, even though I had already heard it a handful of times before.

A record that sticks around just long enough to not wear out its welcome, but leaves you desperate for more, Manonmars is the sound of an rap artist who is willing to take dramatic, intelligent chances within a genre that can rapidly turn stagnant.

A surprisingly jaunty collection of emotionally driven tunes, Lucy Dacus rose out of what could have been, more or less, indie rock obscurity thanks to inking a deal with Matador, her inclusion in the super group boygenius, and this album, Historian, her second full length release.

A spry 10 song set, Historian cemented itself as one of this year’s finest albums thanks to Dacus’ ability to craft evocative imagery alongside real, tangible emotion into her lyrics, the contrast in dynamics she has a performer (the sudden direction and tonal change in “Night Shift” still floors me every time, even after so many months), and the bombastic, ambitious arrangements on the album—the addition of horns and strings at important moments helps add to the weight of these songs.

Historian is, however, not a flawless; the pacing, at times, can drag slightly as it shifts into its middle section, though Dacus and her band manage to keep the surprising bursts of noise and energy coming in an effort to rejuvenate things as it heads into its penultimate track—the cathartic, personal “Pillar of Truth.”

Creating an ambiance as stark as the black and white photograph on the album’s front cover, Paraffin is one of the darkest, most claustrophobic rap records I’ve encountered in a very, very long time—this fact also makes it one of the finest of the year.

The work of independent rappers and producers Billy Woods and Elucid (born Chaz Hall) Paraffin is the third full-length that the duo has collaborated on as Armand Hammer, and from the moment the frenetic drum sample of its opening track, “Sweet Micky” kicks in, all the way through to the pensive, slow motion, dreamy moments of the album’s closing song, “Root Farm,” Paraffin is unremitting in its ability to sustain the tone that the duo has worked so naturally to create.

An absolutely surreal blend of humor, storytelling, and stream of thought lyricism, backed by a combination of both gritty, snarling beats as well as abstracted, atmospheric tones that run throughout the album, Hall and Woods don’t so much play off of one another as performers, but understand how to create a give and take with how much, or how little, they each contribute to a piece.

Paraffin is the kind of album that proves that there are still compelling things happening in rap music, but also shows that the idea of hip-hop culture is still alive and well.

There was, really, no way that this was going to fail.

Taking the aforementioned Lucy Dacus, a critical darling fresh off the release of Historian, and place her in a ‘super group’ with her friends, musical contemporaries, and critical darlings Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker—there was literally no way that the three of them would come up with anything that was less than incredible.

By this point, I feel like everybody should know the history of how boygenius formed, but maybe that’s because so much has been made of this trio—and rightly so. Or maybe it’s because I’ve written about them at least three times since the announcement of this self-titled EP that I feel like I may be repeating myself.

A co-headlining tour between Bridgers and Baker, with Dacus serving as ‘support’ was already booked when the trio decided to head into the studio together—each artist brought a mostly finished song to donate to the group, with each of them bringing in ideas for three additional songs that were written in a more collaborative way.

The resulting six-song effort finds the three artists making familiar contributions, as well as being provided with the opportunity to expand, or experiment, within the group setting. “Bite The Hand” has the ferocity of the pen of Lucy Dacus; “Me and My Dog” has the macabre send of humor only Phoebe Bridgers can provide; and “Stay Down” is boiling over with an emotional drama that has become Julien Baker’s trademark—only now she’s backed by a full band, rather than selling all that emotion on her own.

But it’s the group’s collaboratively written pieces that are among this collection’s finest, and most surprising—like the haunting closing track, “Ketchum, ID,” which finds the trio singing around one microphone as Bridgers strums the guitar, or my favorite track, the somber, shuffling folk-tinged “Souvenir.”

Do you want boygenius to be a full-length release rather than an EP? Of course. Do you hope that this wasn’t just a one-off thing in support of their joint tour? Absolutely. No matter what comes of this though, boygenius is important—not only for already rising careers of Daucus, Baker, and Bridgers, but for young women working in independent music, and perhaps without knowing it at the time, the formation of boygenius and the recording of these six-songs has gone onto become something much larger than itself.

Leave it to Earl Sweatshirt, one of the marquee name, breakout stars from the Odd Future collective, to slide in to one of the final months of the year and deliver one of the most dizzying, ambitious, and startlingly innovative records of 2018.

Born Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, record critics who already completed their ‘best of’ lists for 2018 were more than likely kicking themselves for not being able to include Earl’s third proper full-length, Some Rap Songs, near the top of those lists—it is an absolute game changer for Earl Sweatshirt as a rap artist, but it also is daring enough to challenge, and change, the sound of rap music in general.

Some Rap Songs never really lets up—from the moment it begins, with an excerpt of James Baldwin speaking, to the chopped up and warped sample of “Riot!,” a jazz song written and performed by Kgositsile family friend Hugh Masekela, the album itself is meant to be listened to as a whole, and the irony of the title shouldn’t be lost on you, the listener, since it certainly isn’t lost on Earl Sweatshirt. One would expect a rapper to put together an album of ‘rap songs,’ but what he’s done is weave what is, more or less, a collage—15 individual vignettes that, surprisingly, never feel like they are unfinished sketches that could have been developed more; no, far from it.

The brevity of Some Rap Songs is surprising at first—25 minutes total, the longest track is also the album’s opener, “Shattered Dreams”—clocking in at slightly over two minutes. But the brevity of the album is premeditated, and within each track, the short track lengths makes the material found within that much more urgent and immediate. The intent is that you sit down with the album and listen to it all the way through, immersing yourself in the dense world Earl has worked to create.

Earl’s last full-length, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside was a stark meditation on death and grieving, mental health, and substance abuse; he covers those issues again on Some Rap Songs, but through the lens of an additional three year passage of time filled with additional loss as well as additional darkness. His outlook isn’t bleak—I mean, look at the times we are living in. “Everyday was trash,” he raps on the album’s second single, “The Mint.” And he’s right—I have seen so many trash days in 2018.

At age 24, Earl Sweatshirt has already lived a thousand lives, and may go on to live a thousand more. With Some Rap Songs, he has created what may be his definitive artistic statement—a self-contained, cohesive set of self-referential ‘songs,’ backed by mind bending and innovative beats, all with the intent to say that there is no cure for the human condition, but maybe you shouldn’t give up just yet.

Writing these ‘year end’ lists is, truthfully, kind of a pain in the ass, for a number of reasons—like, making the list to begin with is no easy task, but the real issue is a matter of time.

It’s difficult, especially at the end of December when members of your family want to see you (for some reason) or you’re busy working or whatever, to carve out that extra time to write about albums you’ve already written about once in a year.

After making this year’s list, sitting down with each record again, and then finding more nice things to say about them—I realized I had made, what I deemed to be, some mistakes with the way I had ordered the albums, and had time to switch things around; however, there was no doubt, at any point, that Mitski’s Be The Cowboy was going to be my favorite record of 2018.

One of the things that made Be the Cowboy such an important record—not only for this year, but for the career of Mitski Miyawaki, is just how diverse it is. Long gone are the days of Miyawaki screaming into the pick up of her electric guitar during the taping of a NPR ‘Tiny Desk’ concert; similarly, gone are the thrashing, and howling moments like Puberty 2’s “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars.”

All of that has been replaced, at least for now, with a startling maturation in songwriting as well as in arranging. Be The Cowboy is bombastic and layered in ways that are difficult to describe. No two songs sound the same, but the album as a whole is a cohesive set, loosely connected by a theme that runs from beginning to end—the idea of ‘love.’

Don’t get it twisted, though; Be The Cowboy is not an album of ‘love songs.’ It is an album comprised of songs about love—meaning some of them are filled with yearning, some of them are full of anticipation, some of them are full of regret, and some of them are devastating.

Just as Miyawaki is no longer content to be the girl with a guitar, screaming into it, or over the top of it while she strums out harshly distorted chords, Be The Cowboy documents her ascension into what can only be called ‘pop music for adults.’ Be The Cowboy is pop music—not the kind of garbage you hear on Top 40 radio, but accessible and at times infectiously written music that has heart—deep heart, in many cases—that resonates with the listener and stays with them, in their thoughts, long after the record has finished.

Just as this is an album of songs about love, but not love songs, referring to Be The Cowboy as a pop record shouldn’t be confused for, say, what Annie Clark did with her 2017 St. Vincent release MASSEDUCTION—Technicolor, electrified pop music that was focused more on substance and spectacle rather than the content itself. Miyawaki may pepper a song with a jaunty horn arrangement, or throw in a grand sweeping bit of strings—and yes, even her live performances have become more theatrical, but she, at no point on Be The Cowboy, lets things get out of control.

Of all the records this year that explored the human condition, Be The Cowboy was perhaps the most human of them all, simply because it is an album about love—the bad, the good, the mundane. It’s human because Miywaki, as a songwriter, creates incredibly vivid portraits within her lyrics; maybe none of these things have happened to her, but you believe it when, on “Old Friend,” she meets an old lover for coffee; or when she meets a different old lover but winds up falling back into bed with them on “Lonesome Love”; or when she needs affection and remembrance from someone while on the road, on “Remember My Name.”

You’re right there with her as she pleads, “You’re the one I want,” on the album’s torrential and powerful opening track, “Geyser,” and you’re there, in a sad high school gymnasium, watching two people struggle through their unspoken desires on the album’s absolutely heartbreaking final moment, “Two Slow Dancers.”

From the first moment I heard it, shortly before its release in August, until right now, there was never another record in 2018 that came close to being this good, this thought provoking, or this moving. Mitski Miyawaki, five albums into her relatively short career, has made the kind of artistic statement that some performers spend their whole lives trying to create.